Whales, Khoi-San, and Chardonnay: Getaway to South Africa’s Wild Coast (Part Two)

Part One of the story of our Wild Coast Meander brought us all the way to Wavecrest Beach on the evening of our second leg, with my husband staring at the boulder in his hand and cursing our friend Mike with a string of expletives I won’t repeat here. Because no doubt it had been he who had planted the rock in Noisette’ backpack while we all took short naps during our lunch break.

I can only imagine the glee he must have felt when he shouldered his daypack and loudly announced to no one in particular: “Funny how these feel heavier than before lunch!” We should have known then that he was up to no good.

Noisette, not to be outdone, spent a considerable amount of energy on cooking up schemes to get back at his tormentor. The next morning Mike came to find his shoes tied to a fencepost with remarkable patience, and he would finish the day soaked to the bone after a river crossing where Noisette scouted out the surroundings, stripped to his boxers for a swim, and pounced on Mike’s canoe once it was safely in the middle of the stream.

Wild Coast Meander: sunset on South Africa's wild coast
Serenity: Sunset at Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa

Perhaps I remember Wavecrest Hotel and Spa as the nicest of our hike simply because it was such a welcome sight after a brutal day of battling the elements. Perhaps any old hut would have done. But to me, its unique location with the ocean on the right, rolling green hills on the left, the river flanked by mangrove swamps before us, and the vast expanse of the beach beyond, left nothing to be desired from life.

A quick note about the Wild Coast Meander hotels:

Kob Inn, located approximately three hours Northeast of East London, is where you begin your hike. Offers many activities like tennis, mountain biking, horse riding, boating.

Mazeppa Bay Hotel is tucked among lush tropical plants in a gorgeous setting. Amenities include swimming pool, tennis court, trampoline, beach volleyball, and a private island with suspension bridge.

Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa sits on the banks of an inlet with a mangrove-lined  lagoon on one side and an expanse of beach and rolling dunes on the other. Best features: outdoor jacuzzi, cappuccino maker, and full spa offering massages.

Trennery’s Hotel has an African ambiance. Rooms are white-washed, thatch-roofed chalets tucked under indigenous trees, and dinner is served off the braai.

Morgan Bay is a good spot to add another day when traveling with family, as it features large 3-room suites sleeping six, and a number of activities, but it is less secluded than the other hotels.

The Wild Coast Meander can be booked through Helen Ross at Wild Coast Holiday Reservations:

P O Box 8017 Nahoon
East London
Tel  043 7436181
Fax 043 7436188

If our plans had allowed for it, I would have liked nothing more than to stretch out on a chair in front of our thatch-covered cottage and stare into the paradise spread out at my feet. And oh, I might be a bit biased by virtue of the full-fledged cappuccino machine on the premises.

Beaches, beautiful as they are, can become a bit dull after days on end walking along them and taking a gazillion pictures from every possible angle. So it was a welcome change of scenery when the next day our guide, Alex, took us inland for a shortcut through dense tropical forest. He pointed out birds and animal tracks, gave us a lecture about a tree whose fruit, I seem to remember, the locals called White Woman’s Titty (but I can’t be sure), and stopped to dig under a bush to reveal a “miden,”a substantial mound of seashells discarded by the Khoi-San Bushmen who roamed this land in ancient times. One time he relegated us to a stanza of the “Tongue Clicking Song,” a must when traveling in Xhosa territory.

But by far the best application of Alex’s knowledge and craftiness was on display when he purchased a bucket of oysters from a local fisherman for a pittance. I’m no big fan of oysters, but Noisette claims they were the best oysters he has ever had.

The Wild Coast is not so much wild because of its untamed wilderness, but rather because it has never been developed. What was formerly the nominally independent Republic of the Transkei, one of the “bantustans” or homelands established by the South African apartheid regime to foster their policy of “separate development,” is now part of the Eastern Cape, a rural and impoverished area of the country.

Much of the farmland along the Wild Coast is held as communal property by the Xhosa tribe and can only be leased but not purchased by private citizens, which is why commercial development is practically nonexistent. The notable exceptions are the very hotels we rested in along the way, spaced so far apart that you won’t encounter a soul when hiking from one to the other.

The only signs of human habitation were occasional rondavels on distant hillsides – what a spectacular view these modest dwellings came with! – and the sad remains of a ship one wrecked on this coast. If you live in those parts, you earn your keep by herding cows, acting as guides or selling beaded jewelry to groups like ours,  or working as a ferryman operating ancient canoes across the many rivers and collecting ZAR 2  (15 cents) as their fare.

Wild Coast Meander: woman selling beaded wares at Kob Inn on South Africa's wild coast
This is Gladys, who was selling beaded necklaces and other trinkets at Kob Inn. I purchased a Christmas ornament and some ankle bracelets for our girls from her.

The last two days of our hike are a bit of a blur to me. More pastures, more cows, more picturesque beaches with breakers pounding onto the rocks and miles and miles of sand under a warm but never too hot sun.

Trennery’s Hotel, the second to last of the hotels, was beautiful in its own way, an oasis of green lawn surrounded by African bush with yet another gorgeous view. Morgan Bay feels more like a true resort with all the amenities it offers and definitely marks the end of the hike in that it brings you back to civilization and hence bigger vacation-going crowds. For some reason I remember the bars at those last two stops most fondly, but this could be due to the fact that over almost a week of hiking together, our group had grown very close and the jokes and insults were flying – preferably over more than one bottle of Chardonnay.

Wild Coast Meander: porters resting during wild coast meander
Our porters on the 2nd day. Porters changed daily, hiking back to their starting points after delivering our bags and collecting their payment. On long stretches they changed over midway.
Wild Coast Meander: South Africa's wild coast
The typical vast expanses of beach during the Wild Coast Meander
Wild Coast Meander: South Africa's wild coast
Yet another beach
Wild Coast Meander: South Africa's wild coast
This beach was the home stretch coming towards Morgan Bay
Wild Coast Meander: Morgan Bay Hotel on South Africa's wild coast
Our suite at Morgan Bay: You can glimpse the edge o the bed in the next room, and another one beyond that one. We could have moved in with our entire family for a week.
Wild Coast Meander: View from Morgan Bay Hotel on South Africa's wild coast
The view backward to where we came from as seen from our room at Morgan Bay Hotel

By the way, when we added and divided our entire group’s bill for drinks, boat rides, and – yes! – massages at the end of the week, it came to under $100 per person. Travel in South Africa, once you’ve paid for the flight to get there, is laughably affordable.

One of the biggest pleasures of our hike was the gratuitous whale watching from almost every vantage point. Whenever you managed to take your eyes off the molehills or boulders in front of you and turn them to the horizon, you’d glimpse a big splash of a fluke or spray of mist shooting up into the air. Our South African friends who remembered vacationing there as children were certain there had been no whales in those days. Even though whaling was banned by South Africa as far back as 1935, it has taken this long for Southern right whales and humpbacks to make these waters their breeding grounds again.

When the end of our Meander approached after a rather modest 56 kilometers, we all agreed that we’d happily continue to walk all the way around the Cape of Good Hope to the windswept Skeleton Coast of Namibia, especially if we’d continue to be wined and dined like royalty and trailing our entourage of porters.

I’m definitely a convert to the slackpacking cause. We will just pay better attention to stray boulders in our packs the next time. 

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